Thinking about sin

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

One of the ways I help children understand what the word ‘Sin’ means is to think about ‘S’ standing for being ‘selfish’; when we think only of what is best for ourselves and don’t think of the needs or feelings of other people. ‘I’ stands for all those times when I say ‘I will or I won’t do that’. ‘N’ stands for saying ‘No’ to God’s commandments. This usually proves a useful way of helping the children understand that ‘sin’ is not something on the edge of life but something that is mixed up with everything we do or think. Experience shows that when children begin to understand how difficult it is to be free of sin then they begin to understand how amazing the love of Jesus is. They see that we need to be saved and that we have a Saviour.

This stands in marked contrast with much of my experience of adults. It sometimes would appear that rather than reflect on the meaning of ‘sin’ many people have erased it from their vocabulary. It would seem that we live in a sinless society. Instead of selfishness we have that oft-repeated phrase: ‘I/ you owe it my/yourself’. Instead of the‘I’ of wilful imposition of my will on others, there is the clarion call to ‘be myself’. When it comes to saying ‘No’ to God’s commandments there is a woeful ignorance of what they are or, what is even worse, a straightforward rejection of the Word of God as out of date or irrelevant. Everything that is wrong in life would appear to be someone else’s fault!

Much of modern church liturgy says very little about ‘sin’ and the penitential aspect of corporate prayer lacks conviction. This is particularly striking if, like me, one is a regular user of the Book of Common Prayer where the General Confessions have the genius to be both corporate and personal expressions of heartfelt penitence. Phrases like ‘the memory of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable’ would not find a place in many modern service booklets. It is a simple fact that we don’t ‘do sin’ very well at the moment.

With Lent approaching it is a good time to think again about sin. Do you consider yourself to be ‘sinful’? How do you begin to engage with God in a spirit of penitence and open your heart in need to the Lord? Scripture is the best place to begin. ‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Be straight with God; ask for grace to know where your life is at enmity with him. Two prayer exercises that I have found helpful I offer as possible ways to a deeper penitence. The first is to reflect on the saying of Jesus: ‘I call you friends’ – consider Jesus’ friendship to you and then ask yourself, ‘Am I a good friend to Jesus?’ The second is from the Ignatian Exercises. In your imagination place yourself before Jesus on the cross and ask three questions of him: ‘What have I done for you, what am I doing for you, what should I do for you?’ Then go and make your confession.